Friday, November 2, 2012

La Toussaint: or, a Rant about Public Education

This week is the Catholic/Christian holiday All Saint's day--or, as they say in France, La Toussaint.

While I was in Austria, because the Austrians, like the French, are nominally Catholic, I got All Saint's day (Allerheiligen in German) off there, too. But, instead of, say, a four day weekend, like in Austria, I get a whole two weeks off.

I'm getting pretty used to the French way of doing things: from my ridiculous number of days off to my peripheral teaching duties--virtually no lesson planning--since I've been asked to help the student improve their speaking skills and all I have to do is show up with a topic and a vocabulary list.

The government-mandated French work week is 35 hours; the average amount of time off a year is five weeks (also government mandated) and as a teacher, I get all of the school holidays off - that's four two-week vacations a school year, not to mention summer vacation.

Before you scoff, or express your jealousy, or anything like that, I wish to mention a few things about the average French high school schedule. School starts at 8AM and can go all the way to 6PM some days, though the students are not obligated to stay in the building when they don't have class. They have 10-12 subjects each year, and are required to take a grueling school leaving exam, the baccalaureat or bac for short. If they don't pass it the first time, they repeat their final year until the do.

Most kids who don't repeat a year graduate at 18, like in the United States. But, if they do repeat a year (once, twice, or even more times), they stay until they pass the bac: I have a student who's 21. No joke. The system is relatively speaking the same throughout Europe. Students in Austria who don't pass their Matura the first time around have to stay until they do; likewise in Germany with their Abitur.

It makes me wonder: in the United States, we push kids through so virtually everyone graduates at 18, whether they've learned what they need to in high school or not. As the old saying goes, "D for Diploma--that's good enough for me!" There are no school leaving exams, at least not in Wisconsin, and though certain educational programs are implemented at the national level (the infamous "No Child Left Behind," or the equally dubious "Rise to the Top"), most decisions on public education are left up to the states to decide. And that doesn't always work.

Not to get political, but I must contribute the travesty of my home state's gubernatorial recall election in June 2012. One of the first things Governor Scott Walker put into place when he was elected--the thing, indeed, that caused riots in Madison and a call to arms to recall him in the first place--was to cut public workers' rights, including teachers', by limiting their bargaining rights.

Now, you might not see directly how this would affect education in Wisconsin. Think about it this way: if teachers are demoralized because they're getting paid less than what they're worth--or have no control over their pensions, etc.--they will not be as effective in the classroom. Fewer young people will want to go into the teaching profession, since there is little prestige and virtually no pay for lots and lots of hard work. So you see?   Policy can affect a lot of different things, and what your child learns is definitely one of them.

Though the American school system isn't perfect, it does compare favorably to the French system, which has a lot less interactive learning and a lot more lecture-based. Teaching in France has a, didactic?...quality along the lines of "I talk, you listen."  In Austria, it depends, but the preferred teaching method there is of a "call and response" nature: the teacher has the answer book, and checks the students' knowledge against what it says in the book. Of course, discussion comes into play more often in Austria as well. Having an opinion is valued in both cultures, but in France, the tendency is to keep it to yourself until you're out of the classroom.

One last note: teachers in France do not get paid as well as teachers in Austria, but they certainly get more days off.

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